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What Does a Wah Pedal Do, and How Does it Work?

Do you want to make your guitar lines sound more like a human voice? A great tool to help with this is the wah-wah pedal (wah pedal.) If you’re wondering what a wah pedal is and how it works, read on.

The wah is one of the most iconic guitar pedals that a guitarist can add to their signal chain.

What is a wah pedal and how does it work?

Since the advent of the wah pedal, it has found a home in the hearts of musicians and music lovers alike. The wah provides an unmistakable signature sound. The pedal can be utilized in several different ways, aside from achieving the more “vocal” quality many try to emulate.

In this article, we will discuss the origins of the wah pedal, the underlying mechanics of the pedal, the various ways in which it can be used, and some great examples of wah usage in a musical context. Prepare yourself. It’s about to be a combination of soaring leads, tasteful inflections, a dose of psychedelia, and a bit of good old stank-face funk. 

The Origin of the Wah Pedal

The wah pedal has an interesting backstory. Some may wonder, what exactly was the wah pedal trying to mimic? The answer is not related to guitar playing but instead finds its roots in jazz music of the 1920s. Quite often, trumpetists and trombonists would play using a mute, and when they would actively play while opening the mute from the bell of their instruments, a “wah” sound would be made. 

Roll-Your-Own

Eventually, the effect would find its way into the realm of the guitar. While the original prototype for the effect pedal wasn’t made until the mid-1960s, several guitarists created their own version of a wah.

Peter Van Wood, a jazz guitarist, created a version of the effect to record on several recordings, including “Summertime,” a well-known George Gershwin composition, in 1955. In the late 1950s, Chet Atkins, the country-guitar wizard, also created his own version of the pedal for use on the recordings “Slinkey” and “Hot Toddy.” 

First Vox Wah

In 1966, the first wah pedal (as we have come to know it) was created by total accident. At the time, Warwick Electronics Inc. owned a company called the Thomas Organ Company. Warwick Electronics Inc. had the rights to sell Vox (a British company) equipment to the United States, and the Thomas Organ Company was in charge of building much of the Vox equipment sold to the U.S. 

It was tasked with creating an American version of the Vox Ampliphonic Orchestra amp series. It was thought that a way to cut manufacturing costs would be to use solid-state circuitry instead of the vacuum tubes used in the British Vox offerings. However, when Brad Plunkett tested the circuitry through a speaker, several people standing nearby noticed a difference in how it sounded. Eventually, a saxophone was played through the speaker with the circuitry, and then a control pedal was plugged in, and it was noted that the combination created this “wah” sound.

Trumpet Wah

Shortly after, an electric guitar was used in conjunction with this prototype. However, it was not marketed initially towards guitarists but rather players of wind instruments. The name of jazz trumpeter Clyde McCoy was attached to the pedal as an endorser to help market the product. 

Cry Baby Wah

A patent was filed in 1967 and granted to Warwick Electronics Inc. in 1970. To market the pedal in the U.S., the Thomas Organ Company wanted to change the name to the “Cry Baby” due to its unique sound. Because the name was never trademarked, the market became flooded with clones of the pedal.

Eventually, the wah pedal as we know it found itself in the signal chains of many well-known musicians, helping to spawn a whole musical revolution in terms of the sonic capabilities of the guitar. Today, the wah pedal is manufactured by many companies in the industry, offering both basic versions and updated versions with more controls than what was initially provided.

The Mechanics of the Wah

Wah pedals are very basic mechanically. Typically, they are controlled by a foot pedal that controls the wah’s sweep, going from a more bassy sound at the heel to a more trebly sound at the toe. 

What is happening inside the box is that a bandpass filter is being controlled by the foot. While it is being controlled by your foot, the resonant frequency of the bandpass filter is also being moved, allowing for that iconic “wah” sound to appear in your speaker. 

While many “standard” wah pedals use a switch underneath the foot pedal to turn the unit on/off, there are also switchless wahs available on the market that use optics instead. A great benefit to switchless wahs is the fact that components are less likely to fail over time but does come with the drawback that it may not be as easy to leave the wahs engaged in one location because many are spring-loaded to return to the heel position when not in use.

Applications of the Wah Pedal

The wah pedal can be used in a variety of different ways to spice up your guitar playing. As with any guitar pedal, time, practice, and experimentation are needed to get the pedal’s mechanics under your belt.

Rocking Wah

One way to use the pedal is to rock the pedal forward with each note that you play, rocking it back before your next note, and rocking it forward again with the next note. This gives excellent expression to leads that can push a lead into a more in-your-face visceral type of sound. It can also make a solo sound more vocal in quality.

Rhythm Method Wah

Another way to use the wah is to rock the foot pedal back and forth in a set rhythm. This filter type of effect can add excellent dynamics to a song, giving your guitar playing more depth and dimension. Along with this usage method, the pedal can be slowly swept up and down during play, which is an incredible and effective sound reminiscent of the open/close filter technique often heard in electronic music.

Get Funky Wah

The wah is also extremely handy at creating funky-sounding rhythms. This is often best achieved by rocking the foot pedal forward on the rhythmic accents of your strumming. Match it up with a drummer’s playing, and it’s easy to understand why this simple effect has found a home with this style of playing.

Static Wah

One more way this pedal can be used is to turn it on and leave the foot pedal in a static position (without rocking the pedal during play). Your tone will take on the qualities of the bandpass filter in whichever position it is set, whether that be more trebly, more bassy, or somewhere in between.

The Wah in Your Signal Chain

If you are unsure where to place the wah pedal, there are several different areas where you can place it. Conventionally, it is thought that filter pedals (such as a wah pedal) work best towards the beginning of the signal chain, before overdrive and distortion pedals.

However, it would help if you experimented with the placement, as you might enjoy the sound of the wah placed after the overdrive/distortion section of your signal chain. The wah may not have much of a practical function placed anywhere else in the signal chain, but it could create interesting sounds. 

Examples of Wah Usage

Perhaps one of the best well-known examples of a musician who frequently employed the wah pedal is Jimi Hendrix. Much of his music is flavored heavily with the effect. In his song “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” the wah can be heard from the opening of the track (as well as the rest of the song) with Jimi’s rhythmic pick scratches against muted strings. 

The song “Tales of Brave Ulysses” by Cream features excellent usage of the wah by Eric Clapton. This song likely would not be the same if not for the iconic wah pedal that defined so much of the late 1960’s sound. 

Of course, the wah pedal is used outside of 1960’s music and psychedelic rock in general. Metallica’s Kirk Hammett is a well-known user of the wah pedal, so much that he even has his signature model offered by Dunlop. Scope out this solo from the song “Battery,” which features an excellent wah application. The solo begins around the 3:15 mark.

While the wah pedal has found its way into many genres of music, it is inherent to the sound of funk music. Though innumerable songs could be listed here, the “Theme From Shaft” by Isaac Hayes features classic wah guitar sounds that are undeniably “wah-some.” 

Another classic song that features a wah is “Money For Nothing” by Dire Straits. While it may not be as immediately apparent as the previous examples, guitarist Mark Knopfler achieves his guitar tone in this song by leaving the wah on and placing it in a fixed location (likely towards the heel position). Consequently, his guitar takes on a unique tonal characteristic.

The Alice in Chains song “Man in the Box” features a wah-heavy guitar lead that doubles with the vocal line. This is a beautiful example of how a wah pedal can have a nearly human-like vocal quality. 

For an excellent example of how the wah pedal can be used in a jam setting, the song “Ghost,” taken from Phish’s performance at Virginia Beach, Virginia, on July 7, 1997, is a classic jam that features heavy wah usage from guitarist Trey Anastasio. Though this is a very “exploratory” example, it shows how one can use the wah pedal with rhythm and lead guitar playing. Around the 4:44 timestamp is when this example becomes wah-heavy. 

Conclusion

When people think of the electric guitar, there are likely a few things that come to mind. One thing that is guaranteed to come to mind is the wah pedal and the very distinct sound it adds to the guitar. 

Who would have ever thought that something created by pure accident would have the capability to revolutionize music to the point of not only defining an era’s sound but finding a wide range of uses across nearly all genres of music? As guitarists (and music appreciators), we should give thanks to this marvel of invention.

Even though the wah pedal may be pretty basic in terms of the mechanics underlying the pedal and the way it is used, the pedal can offer quite a range of uses that can add character to your playing no matter how you use it. No matter what style of music you play, you are likely to find a use for a wah pedal in your signal chain. 

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Categorized as Pedals